When fava beans come into season in early May in San Francisco, they bring to mind an ethereal cassoulet that we had at La Centenaire Restaurant in town of Les Eyzies in the Perigord. It wasn't the stick-to-your-ribs Boston baked beans version made with dried beans and chunks of fatty meat and cooked for days, but an ethereally light version made with fresh fava beans and little taste sparklers of duck sausage and crispy duck skin sprinkled on top of the favas. The restaurant may have been stretching the imagination a bit to call this a "cassoulet" and may have scared off some customers from trying it simply because of the lumpy associations we have with any dish that goes by the name "cassoulet". However, Julia Child's introduction to cassoulet in Mastering the Art of French Cooking hints that cassoulet may have originated with the Arabs who made it with fava beans!
During the fava bean season last spring, we experimented with making La Centenaire's version one Sunday evening after buying gigantic bags of favas at the Saturday market. It was a great success. This year we'll be trying the recipe again as soon as favas come into season and may make a few minor improvements. In any case, here's the recipe we developed last year to try as soon as you see fresh fava beans in the market. I'll post any improvements that we make this season.
You'll need to shell a lot of favas beans even if you're making the recipe for 2 people. So prepare enough time to do this tedious job. But if you're making it for 4 or more, you'd better plan on having a Fava Bean Shelling Party before dinner and inviting your guests to come early to help with the shelling. Shelling favas is a dog of a job to do alone!
If you already have home-made veal stock and home-made chicken stock in your freezer and have access to smoked duck or even roasted duck from a Chinese grocery store, this is will be a very simple and quick dish to make. Using Chinese duck is definitely a short-cut and should be used only as a last resort. The seasonings on the Chinese duck will impart a little different flavor to the cassoulet, which is not that bad, but be prepared for somewhat unconventional slant to the overall flavor of the dish.
This ethereal cassoulet is best served in a flat shallow bowl just deep enough to hold a thin layer of broth and all of the other ingredients. Bouillabaisse bowls are overwhelmingly too big for this dish. Even though the main ingredient, the fava beans, is light, the broth is very rich and the taste sparklers are small but oily. So I recommend keeping the first servings small, but be prepared to serve seconds. It's a fetching dish!
1 cup Veal Stock
1 cup Chicken Stock
1 Roasted Duck
2 Duck Sausage
3 thick slices of salt pork (thick-cut bacon is OK)
2½ lbs. fresh fava beans
1 yellow onion, very thinly sliced
It's very important to have your serving bowls, the stock and fava beans hot:
You can also use this stock to make a demi-glace, an intensely concentrated veal stock used for sauces, by simmering the strained stock for another few hours.
It's really worth committing a Sunday to make several quarts of stock and freezing it in small containers. So when you come across a recipe like this Ethereal Cassoulet, you can whip it together as soon as you can find fresh favas in the market.
I freeze the carcasses of raw and cooked chicken as they accumulate from various chicken dinners until I'm ready to make a stock. When I've accumulated enough frozen chicken parts to make a stock, I throw all the little packages from the freezer directly into a stock pot (or crock pot) with a quartered onion, a few bay leaves and peppercorns, chopped celery and carrots (if I have them on hand). Just barely cover with water and bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Simmer partially covered for about 3 hours. Strain out the bones and vegetables. Put the stock into a large bowl and when it's cooled to room temperature, put it into the refrigerator overnight. The chicken fat will congeal on the top and will be very easy to remove. Then your stock is ready to use or freeze in small containers.
Salt and pepper the inside of a 4 lb. duck. Prick the skin with a fork. This will let the melting duck fat under the skin to flow freely to the surface. (If you're really ambitious, you could also separate the skin from the body by sliding your fingers between those two layers. This will create an even crisper skin.) Put the duck (breast side up) on a roasting rack and roast at 400° F for about 40 - 60 minutes. Turn duck once during this time. Remove the duck from the oven and let it cool until ready use.
You can also try smoked duck breast or smoked chicken breast if it's available in your area. In San Francisco, we can get both from Hoffman Gamebirds at the Saturday Farmers' Market in downtown San Francisco at the Ferry Plaza. The Hoffmans are now shipping their products to Chicago, Miami and Newport Beach.
One pound of unshelled fava beans will yield ¾ cup of shelled beans. For this recipe, I recommend you prepare 1 cup of shelled, cooked beans per person. So you'll need to buy 2½ lbs. of pods.